New Initiative at National Museum Addresses Gender Parity in the Art World

Guerrilla Girls, Do Women Have to Be Naked Update from the series “Guerrilla Girls Talk Back: Portfolio 2” (2005). Photo: courtesy the National Museum of Women in the Arts, © Guerrilla Girls

Feminism is getting a boost at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) in Washington, DC, this fall, via Women, Arts, and Social Change (WASC), a new initiative that takes a cross-disciplinary approach in addressing social and political issues that affect women.

The focus of the program will be Fresh Talk, a conversation series that will bring together prominent women both in the arts and in other fields to discuss pressing issues facing women today, including equality, race, education, and the environment. “Our goal is to take the three core principles on which the museum was founded—arts, women and social action—and create programs that could begin to make a difference,” said NMWA director Susan Fisher Sterling in a statement. “This museum is the ideal place to present this steady drumbeat of socially relevant programming that explicitly champions women and the arts as catalysts of change.”

For the museum, Sterling admitted in an e-mail interview with artnet News, the continued inequality for women in the arts has become something of “elephant in the room”—an underlying issue that the institution is dedicated to confronting, but isn’t always addressed directly.

Carrie Mae Weems, <i>Untitled (Woman Standing)</i>, 1990.

Carrie Mae Weems, Untitled (Woman Standing), 1990.

The museum’s efforts to address broader issues such as class and especially race should prove interesting, given the challenges to and blind spots in the feminist movement. This year, for instance, when actress Patricia Arquette called for gay people and people of color to fight for equal pay for women during her best supporting actress acceptance speech for Boyhood, the response was mixed.

Meryl Streep may have given her a standing ovation, but others accused Arquette of supporting a brand of feminism that is “only for white women.” The NMWA is clearly looking to be more inclusive, bringing on-board MacArthur genius grant-winning photographer Carrie Mae Weems for one of the inaugural Fresh Talks evenings.

“That there are so few images of African-American women circulating in popular culture or in fine art is disturbing; the pathology behind it is dangerous. I mean, we got a sistah in the White House, and yet mediated culture excludes us, denies us, erases us,” Weems told BOMB in 2009. “I insist on making work that includes us as part of the greater whole.”

The WASC program kicks off on October 18 with “Righting the Balance—Can there be gender parity in the art world?National Academy Museum chief curator and arts writer Maura Reilly, who served as the founding curator of Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, is co-organizing the event.

The evening will be divided into segments on the market, artists, and the issue as whole. Guerrilla Girl Alma Thomas, Hyperallergic critic Jillian Steinhauer, and Mary Sabbatino, partner and vice president at New York’s Galerie Lelong, will be among the speakers drawn from the art world. Placing the discussion within a broader context will be Jamia Wilson, executive director of Women, Action, & the Media.

In November, Weems will be on hand to explore artists’ ability—and responsibility—to inspire social change. The series resumes in the new year with “Change by Design,” featuring designer Gabriel Maher and New York Times design critic Alice Rawsthorn, who will consider the role gender identity plays in the field.

Below, artnet News spoke to Sterling about her hopes for the new initiative.

What are some of the specific goals the museum hopes to meet in terms of empowering women in the arts and challenging the status quo?

The vision for Women, Arts, and Social Change is inspired by the observation over the last several years that current discourse focused on women and social change typically do not include any depth on the arts and programs focused on arts and social change tend to underrepresent women’s contributions. With our mission to champion women through the arts, no organization is more uniquely poised to take up this conversation. By focusing on women, artists, designers, and innovators—people whose socially conscious ideas and innovations are reshaping lives and economies, engaging communities, and empowering women and girls—we hope to foreground the relevance of the arts in our lives and their potential to impact social change.

It’s great to see Emma Watson and Taylor Swift speaking up for social justice, but with trends such as “women against feminism” what will it take to change the discourse so that the movement isn’t seen in a negative light?

We see gender-based social justice as a daily focus on Facebook feeds, Tweets, and blogs. Major summits empowering women are being convened, TED Talks given, and books written. This growing phalanx of advocates for women is growing with a necessary urgency that is hard to deny. By the way, it’s interesting to note… that a year after Beyoncé made the “non-feminist” statement in Vogue, she wholeheartedly embraced the word feminist in massive glowing capital letters in her performance at the 2014 MTV Music Video Awards.

How did you select the participants for Fresh Talk, and what are are you looking forward to as the initiative gets off the ground?

We decided to launch with a program to address the “elephant in the room” here at NMWA—the current state of women in the arts today reflecting upon the museum’s core advocacy mission. We then chose to feature artist and activist Carrie Mae Weems, an artist who had her first major solo show at NMWA in 1993, to talk about her belief in an artist’s social responsibility. In conjunction with our exhibition, “Pathmakers: Women in Art, Craft, and Design, Midcentury and Today,” we wanted to highlight the new pathmakers who are leading socially-conscious innovation. So in January we’ll kick off a year of Fresh Talk programs under the theme of “Change by Design,” featuring conversations on genderless design, art and environmental remediation, bicycles as agents of change, women pioneers in the film industry, architects as community builders, and fashion as a visual manifesto.

Pathmakers: Women in Art, Craft, and Design, Midcentury and Today,” currently on view at the Museum of Arts and Design (April 28–September 30, 2015), will travel to the National Museum of Women in the Arts October 30, 2015–February 28, 2016. 

Related Stories:

Camille Paglia Denounces Emma Sulkowicz Calling Her a Bad Feminist

Miss Piggy Is a Feminist Icon—Now with an Award to Prove It!

Critical Reduction: Carrie Mae Weems at the Guggenheim

Follow Artnet News on Facebook:

Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.